It is with great excitement that I write this study because the topic of the Ancient Mysteries is fascinating to me and so many Masons. Wilmshurt writes in Chapter 1 of The Meaning of Masonry that the Mysteries existed in the East, in Chaldea, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, among the Hebrews, Mohammedans, Christians, and in Africa. I take this opportunity to provide some historic background useful to understanding the rest of the book. The focus of this article is the ancient Mystery religions of Greece.
Ancient Mysteries in Greece
In addition to the official state religion, there were the “mystery religions” in ancient Greece, which required elaborate processes of purification and initiation before one could qualify for membership. The mystery religions were concerned with the inner spiritual life of the individual. Their adherents believed in an orderly universe and the unity of all life within it. The relationship between the Initiates and the Divine within the mystery schools, in contrast with the official state religion, was considered to be intimate. In fact, the aim and promise of the mystical rites was to enable the Initiate to feel a personal union with the Divine. But the nature of the mysteries in Greece was not wholly contemplative. There was much ritual involved: purifications and processions, fasting and feasts, musical liturgies and sacred plays, all geared to fueling the imagination and stirring deep spiritual emotions. Much as in Masonry, Initiates then left the celebration of the mystery rites knowing that they were now better prepared to handle profound problems concerning life, death, and immortality. The Greek mysteries, like their counterparts elsewhere, held the promise of life-renewal or re-birth. Such profound concept, was explained by Manly P. Hall through the symbolism of the Phoenix: “[a]ll symbols have their origin in something tangible, and the Phoenix is one sign of the secret orders of the ancient world and of the initiate of those orders, for it was common to refer to one who had been accepted into the temples as a man twice-born, or re-born.” Manly P. Hall
The early mystery schools of the Greeks centered around a kind of play or ritual reenactment of the life of such gods as Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter—divinities most often associated with the realm of the dead and the process of rebirth. Initiates enacted the life cycle of the gods who triumphed over death and who were reborn. Initiates also asserted their own path of wisdom that would enable them to conquer death and accomplish a rebirth into a new existence.
There is a general consensus that the principal mystery religions of Greece—the Eleusinian, the Dionysian, and the Orphic— were brought to that country from abroad sometime during the Prehistoric Era (c. 2000 b.c.e.). The oldest of the mysteries, the Dionysian, is thought by many to have been developed in Thrace, in the eastern Balkans.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries consisted of initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. They are the most well known of the secret rites of ancient Greece. It is thought that their basis was an old agrarian cult which probably goes back to the Mycenean period (c. 1600 – 1100 BC) and it is believed that the cult of Demeter was established in 1500 BC. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone by the king of the underworld Hades. There were three phases, the “descent” (loss), the “search” and the “ascent” of Persephone. The initiations and school was rather public compared to other mystery religions as it became a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spread to Rome. Yet, the rites, ceremonies, and beliefs themselves were kept secret and consistently preserved from antiquity. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The Dionysian Mysteries
The Dionysian Mysteries remained more secretive than the Eleusinian Mysteries, thus their content is largely guessed at from what depictions and information has remained. The earliest rites of Dionysos are almost universally believed to have been a “wine cult”, concerned with the cultivation of the grapevine, and a practical understanding of its life cycle, embodying the living god in the creation and fermentation of wine and the dead god in the underworld symbolized by the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of the drink itself. Wine back then often included many other ingredients like herbal, floral and resinous additives, which gave the drink a medicinal property and status. The cultivation of all the additions were also under the lore of Dionysos, making it a general vegetation cult and herbal mystery school. Honey and bees wax were also often added to early wine, bringing with them the associations of the even older lore and Neolythic bee cults (whose swarms were often associated with Dionysos as pure “life-force”). Similarly the bull, from whose hollowed horns wine was once drunk, and the goat, who provided wineskins and was the natural pruner of the vine, were also included as cult animals and manifestations of Dionysos.
In Masonry we use stone working metaphors to represent deeper philosophical concepts and teachings. Similarly, the Dionysos Mysteries utilized the stages in the process of making wine to represent different philosophical concepts and teachings, which were for Initiates of the school only. An understanding of both, the practical process of making wine and its wider metaphorical significance, is crucial to grasping the symbolic Mysteries of Dionysos with their emphasis on life and death cycles.
The place of origin of the Hellenic Dionysian Mysteries is unknown, but they almost certainly first came to Greece with the importation of wine, which is widely believed to have originated around 6000 BC in one of two places, either in the Zagros Mountains (the borderlands of Mesopotamia and Persia, both with their own rich wine culture since then) or from the ancient wild vines on the mountain slopes of Libya / North Africa (the source of early Egyptian wine from around 2500 BC, and home of many ecstatic rites).
Whatever the case it appears Minoan Crete was the next link in the chain, taking wine from both the Egyptians and Phoenicians and passing it on to the Greeks by 1600 BC, who would spread it throughout their colonies. The Dionysos Mysteries began absorbing the suppressed primeval cults of all the lands they touched. It would be the Greeks who were left with the task of making sense of the eclectic mix that reached them, and of integrating it into their own mythos with their inventive tales of the journeys and adventures of Dionysos.
The Hellenic world, after Alexander’s conquest, spread the cult of Dionysos internationally, to Egyptian Alexandria, to Palestine, and to India. There was then a breakaway mystical form of Dionysianism that would become part of the more philosophical Pythagorean Mysteries where Dionysos was effectively seen as the creative Primal Chaos before creation. This Dionysianism was in sharp contrast with the earthy, less philosophical, and more primitive rite of Dionysos that in some places still existed at the time.
The Orphic Mysteries
The Orphic religion was a Hellenistic mystery religion thought to have been based on the teachings and songs of the legendary Greek musician Orpheus. No coherent description of the religion can be constructed from the available evidence of its existence as much of it was secretive. Most scholars agree that by the 5th century bc there was at least an Orphic movement, with travelling priests who offered teaching and initiation, based on a body of legend and doctrine said to have been founded by Orpheus.
Part of the Orphic ritual is thought to have involved the death and rebirth of Orpheus. Orphic philosophy emphasized rewards and punishments after the death of the body, the soul then being freed to achieve its true life.
The Pythagorean Mysteries
Pythagoras is a most beloved Ancient Mystery, spiritual, mathematical, and philosophical icon. He was a multi-faceted genius the likes of which Leonardo Da Vinci would embody later in history. Yet, most of the information we have about Pythagoras was written centuries after he lived, so very little truly reliable information is known about him. He was born on the island of Samos in Greece in 570 BC, traveled to Egypt and maybe India, and in 520 BC he returned to Samos. Ten years later, he founded his own school.
Pythagoras is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name. Because of the obscuring effect of unrecorded history, it is possible that some of Pythagoras’ accomplishments were actually produced by his colleagues and successors. What is clear is that numbers and mathematics were central to the Pythagorean school.
Pythagoras considered himself to be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. Plato, who lived after Pythagoras, is said to have known and befriended many Pythagorean thinkers. Pythagoras’ ideas had a profound influence on Plato, and through him, on all of Western philosophy including Masonry.
After spending time in Delphi, Pythagoras worked in Croton, where his Pythagorean School arose, which was a college and a model city under his direction. Through a wise combination of art and science, that magical harmony of soul and intellect which Pythagoreans regarded as the arcanum of philosophy was established.
Pythagoras was particular in admitting Initiates into his more secretive School. A combination of right thinking, virtue, physical abilities, and character was essential to meet the tasks and intensive learning demanded of Initiates. Pythagoras practiced and taught veganism and health, in general, was of primary importance in his school. His teachings were organized in degrees, each with its tests or trials, lessons, and challenges. Albert Pike, while admiring what has come down to us about the Pythagorean system, admitted that its philosophy was simply too well concealed with a veil that is impenetrable, without Pythagoras’ oral explanation. The complex numerical philosophy embedded in the Pythagorean Mystery School remains largely a mystery because only fragments have survived.
The schools established by Pythagoras at Croton and other cities, have been considered by many writers as the models after which Masonic Lodges were subsequently constructed. They undoubtedly served the Christian ascetics of the first century as a pattern for their monastic institutions, with which institutions the Freemasonry of the Middle Ages, in its operative character, was intimately connected.
The disciples of Pythagoras’ school in Croton wore the simplest kind of clothing, and having on their entrance surrendered all their property to the common fund, they then submitted for three years to voluntary poverty, during which time they were also compelled to a rigorous silence. The members were divided into Esoterics and Exsoterics. This distinction was borrowed by Pythagoras from the Egyptian priests, who practiced a similar mode of instruction. The exoteric students were those who attended the public assemblies, where general ethical instructions were delivered by Pythagoras. Only the esoterics constituted the secret or Mystery school. Before admission to the privileges of this school, the previous life and character of the candidate were rigidly scrutinized, and in the preparatory initiation secrecy was enjoined by an oath, and he was made to submit to the severest trials of his fortitude and self-command. It was in this secret school that Pythagoras gave instructions on his interior doctrine, and explained the hidden meaning of his symbols.
From what little we know of the Pythagorean School, scholars have discerned the following. There were three Degrees in Pythagoras’ Mystery School: the first or Mathematic, being engaged in the study of the exact sciences; the second or Theoretic, engaged in the knowledge of God and the future state of man; and the third or highest Degree, which was communicated only to a few whose intellects were capable of grasping the full fruition of the Pythagorean philosophy. He who after his admission was alarmed at the obstacles he had to encounter was permitted to return to the world. The disciples, considering the departed as dead, performed his funeral obsequies and erected a monument to his memory.
The Brethren, about six hundred in number, with their wives and children, resided in one large building. Their meals consisted principally of bread, honey, and water. This school, after existing for thirty years, is believed to have been dissolved through the machinations of Sylo, a wealthy inhabitant of Croton, who, having been refused admission, in revenge excited the citizens against it. A mob attacked the Initiates, burning forty of them to death. The school was never resumed but, after the death of the philosopher, summaries of his doctrines were made by some of his disciples. Many of such doctrines remain uninterpreted and unexplained.
Next time, I will continue this discussion by exploring other Mystery School traditions of the past in an effort to provide a backdrop to Wilmshurst’s views on the foundation of Masonic philosophy and tradition.
Thank you for reading!
Phoenix St. John
Phoenixmasonry.org, Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, Hellenica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Secret Teachings of All Ages (Hall), Encyclopedia.com.